Tag Archives: Rep. Jeff Duncan

A Salute to Our Veterans (Courtesy of the ACS)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Let me start with a timely salute to our nation’s veterans. All 21 million of them, including 2.4 million African American and 1.2 million Hispanic former service members. Shout-outs to Killeen, Texas, and Clarksville, Tennessee, where veterans comprise a quarter or more of local residents. Hats off to the more than nine in ten veterans with a high school diploma — a greater proportion than the general population. And is it any wonder that these patriotic fellow citizens are twice as likely as non-veterans to hold a job in public administration?

Oh, sorry, I digress from the focus of this blog. But really, people, it’s important that we know this stuff — and more — about those who defend our freedoms. About three-quarters of our living military veterans served worldwide while the country was at war. More than a quarter of both Gulf War and post-9/11 era vets live with a service-connected disability. Nearly 30 percent of veterans reside in rural areas, but rural vets represent 41 percent of those enrolled in the VA health care system. Veterans in rural communities are more likely to have at least one disability compared to non-veteran rural dwellers.

Raise your hand if you know where I’m going with this. That’s right: a lot of what we know about our veterans comes from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). Businesses, nonprofits, and federal, state and local leaders use ACS data to understand and address the needs of veterans — from job training and employment assistance, to health care, to housing, and more. Who among us wouldn’t want that for our former soldiers?

So why, oh why, in the words of Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), sponsor of a bill to cancel the ACS (and just about every other Census Bureau program), are Americans “fed up with these mandatory census surveys and [they’re] asking us to stop the harassment”?

Ummm, no, they’re not. Okay, maybe a few are grumbling. According to the Census Bureau’s new cheerleader for harassed Americans (officially called the Respondent Advocate), roughly 60 percent of households answer the ACS without any prodding at all. With a little encouragement and explanation, by phone or in person, the response rate jumps to 97+ percent (weighted). Of the 3.54 million households in the 2012 ACS sample, less than 8,000 refused to participate (and no one, I can assure you, was hauled off to jail). Let’s see: that’s a refusal rate of (drumroll) two-tenths of a percent. The 535 members of Congress were so deluged with anti-ACS complaints that they sent the bureau (another drumroll, please) 187 letters on behalf of distraught constituents over the past 18 months.

Sure, the ACS questions could use a systematic review and some fine-tuning; thorough training will help ensure positive interaction between survey takers and responding householders. I suspect the Census Bureau has been a little behind the eight ball in acknowledging thoughtful concerns about parts of the survey; it’s finally on the right track, I think. More on these efforts in my next blog.

But let’s stop pretending: ACS critics aren’t falling on their data swords for countless (no pun intended, census fans!) Americans abiding stoically in the shadow of government overreach. Ideology — namely, a belief that government can require little of the governed, coupled with an aversion to the sort of federal assistance dispensed on the basis of ACS data — is driving the campaign to weaken (with voluntary response) or eliminate the survey.

And that’s okay. (Yes, you read that correctly.) If you don’t believe that government has a fundamental interest in producing objective, comprehensive data to inform and guide decision-making, go ahead and make your case. Explain and defend the consequences or propose a practical alternative. Just please drop the cover of phantom citizens cowering behind mailboxes, dreading a nosy questionnaire and the prospect of devoting an hour of time to help the world’s greatest democracy function smartly. Most Americans, it seems, are wiser than you think. And they all love our veterans.

Sorry, Come Back Later (Make an Educated Guess in the Meantime)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Last April, I had a brilliant idea: “Let’s stop collecting any information.” Okay, it wasn’t an original idea, I quickly admitted; I pilfered it from a lawmaker who introduced a bill to nix all Census Bureau surveys, save a bare-bones decennial population count.

Census fans were incredulous. That April 23 blog post had record readership; even Stephen Colbert lampooned the bill, and a synopsis of the show quoted my blog. One of my tongue-in-cheek comments — “Cool! Then we might not need congressmen, because just about all of them rely on Census Bureau data to justify their existence.” — apparently struck a chord, judging from reprints in the press.

So far, only 15 colleagues have joined Rep. Jeff Duncan’s (R-SC) quest for an information void. Odds are H.R. 1638 won’t be seeing the legislative light of day any time soon. But do not despair, data-phobes! Congress has managed, through nonfeasance, to accomplish what a teensy fraction of the people’s house cannot on its own.

Thanks to the government shutdown, the Census Bureau’s work has come to a grinding halt. No harassing phone calls to unwitting, over-burdened citizens. No pesky, door-knocking surveyors invading the privacy of hard-working Americans who just want to live a quiet, government-free life (as soon as someone fills that pothole down the street). Even the duty-bound who want to cooperate (however grudgingly) from the comfort of their own computers are out of luck; online survey response is closed for business.

Not only is the populace finally free from the burden of government surveys, it’s relieved of the responsibility of having to consider objective, reliable information at all. The Census Bureau’s website is completely shut down. I’m thinking this is sort of a trial run for H.R. 1638, or maybe for last year’s mystifying House vote to eliminate the American Community Survey. No surveys and censuses, no data. No data, no need for thoughtful analysis of society’s challenges and informed consideration of solutions. We’ll just resort to rhetorical talking points and ideological pronouncements. Wait, wait… something is ringing a bell here…

It’s not just the Census Bureau that has shuttered the windows, of course. No one seems to be manning the websites at most other federal statistical agencies. (Furloughed Bureau of Economic Analysis employees, who are responsible for factoids like the Gross Domestic Product, “sincerely regret the inconvenience.” The GDP must not be very consequential, though, because H.R. 1638 would ax one of the main data sources for this indicator — the Economic Census.)

Not that I’m looking for a silver lining in the mess of the standoff on Capitol Hill, but the media took note of the data vacuum when the monthly unemployment and labor force figures, scheduled for release last Friday, went AWOL. Did we make any progress in job creation in September? Which sectors are hiring and which ones are shedding workers? Legislators usually have their press releases drafted in advance of the monthly first-Friday statistical release, waiting to put their respective spins on the numbers. I wonder how many ever stop to think about the genesis of that vital information — the Census Bureau conducts the survey and the Bureau of Labor Statistics crunches the numbers. Now the data gatherers are idle and the analysts are sitting at home, while the first week of October slides by, threatening the timely release of this month’s labor force data on the first day of November (which happens to fall on a Friday).

Sure, it’s hard to compete with war memorials and cancer drug trials in the battle for public opinion; statistics don’t stand a… well… chance of pulling at the heartstrings. But when Congress gets around to finalizing 2014 agency budgets, let’s hope it gives a little more thought to the public good that all these temporarily missing numbers serve.

# # #

A note to my dear readers who aren’t steeped in the world of statistics: “Chance” magazine is a publication of the American Statistical Association, the world’s largest organization of people working in the statistical sciences.

The ACS: Big Brother, or Democratic Capitalism at Its Best? (You Decide!)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

It’s appropriations season (not to be confused with the closing NBA and NHL seasons, or the full-throttle MLB season, but a sport in its own right nonetheless). That means census stakeholders are on high alert for the latest assault on the Census Bureau’s invaluable — and vulnerable — American Community Survey (ACS).

Let’s take stock of the nation’s largest sample survey, shall we? Following the 1990 census, with disappointing mail-back rates and the highest recorded disproportionate undercount of people of color, lawmakers theorized that the much-maligned census long form — sent to roughly one in six households to measure key socio-economic characteristics — might be dragging down the once-a-decade population count. (Long form response rates were about 12 percent lower than those for the universal short form.) They urged the Census Bureau to find a better way to collect information necessary for decision-making.

The Census bureau launched its signature replacement survey nationally (despite ill-timed budget cuts) in 2005. Congress seemed satisfied. The 2010 census, pared down to just six topical questions for all households, held its own in terms of projected mail-back rates, accuracy, on-time completion and staying within budget (significant technology glitches notwithstanding).

But Congress also was changing. A crop of junior lawmakers who valued limited government above all else soon had the ACS in its crosshairs. First, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) proposed making ACS response voluntary. Not swayed by a hearing on the bill at which every witness (except Rep. Poe) opposed the idea, the House passed an amendment (May 2012) to last year’s Census Bureau appropriations bill. Emboldened, the limited-government gang quickly followed up by snuffing out ACS funding entirely.

Cooler heads prevailed in the Senate, although the final FY2013 Continuing Appropriations Act calls for an independent study of the consequences of making the ACS voluntary. But the survey’s critics are not giving up. Rep. Poe and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) reintroduced bills not only to make ACS response optional, but to require a clear opt-out message on the form.

Not to be outdone, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) decided the Census Bureau shouldn’t do anything at all except count the population every 10 years. No more ACS; goodbye, Economic Census, Census of Governments, Census of Agriculture, and countless other smaller but vital surveys that tell us how our people, communities, economy and business sector are faring.

Given the all-out assault on the ACS, you’d think the survey was a mini version of the NSA phone and email dragnet, designed to breach the privacy of average, law-abiding Americans. But a new coalition in Minnesota shows just how wrong the critics are, and how the survey supports informed decision-making and prudent resource use in virtually every sector of everyday American life.

Minnesotans for the American Community Survey (MACS… cute, huh?) wants members of Congress to know that they rely on ACS data to make policy, operational and fiscal decisions that affect the quality of life in your community and neighborhood. From local chambers of commerce and municipal service and infrastructure agencies to nonprofits serving children and the elderly and people with disabilities and refugees and low-income mothers — the very people who make our communities tick —  organizations need reliable, timely, consistent and comprehensive information to guide the work they do: where to locate stores and what products to sell; how to meet growing transportation needs and mitigate traffic congestion; what type of housing development best meets the needs of residents; who needs health care and help paying for it; whether workforce skills and educational levels match the needs of companies that want to locate in the state.

Dakota County’s Office of Planning and Analysis is a member of MACS. The state’s third-largest at around 400,000 people, Dakota is an all-American county, equal parts urban, suburban and rural, with a high median household income and low family poverty rate. How do we know this? The ACS, of course. What does the county government do for its residents? It helps maintain 440 miles of roads and 81 bridges; protects its natural and agricultural areas; offers job training at workforce centers; prepares for natural disasters and health emergencies; and provides for children in need. I may be going out on a limb here, but I suspect Dakota County doesn’t do any of these things blindly. It uses data derived directly or indirectly from the ACS to evaluate and project the needs of its citizens, and to meet those needs efficiently. Do the data give the county an excuse to spend taxpayer money, as some critics of the ACS have charged? Hardly; Dakota boasts one of the lowest county tax rates in the state.

The Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce is also part of MACS. The organization helps “grow member businesses and the region,” according to its website. It’s currently promoting a huge development project in downtown Minneapolis that will offer office space, housing, retail, dining, parking and park space. And how does a project like this attract investors, stores, home buyers or renters, and business tenants? I’ll go out on a limb again, but I’m pretty sure the glossy brochures feature plenty of economic, social and demographic facts, derived largely from the ACS.

The ACS isn’t Big Brother. It’s your city, community, neighborhood: the construction workers, transforming downtown Minneapolis; the small business owners and store clerks, offering dry cleaning at convenient locations and clothes you want at the mall; the health care clinics, treating children in low-income households when they’re sick; the county planners, making sure there will be enough elementary schools to serve a growing number of young families; transportation systems, accommodating people with disabilities and the elderly; and workforce centers, helping returning veterans match their skills to available jobs.

We do our part as Americans by answering a few questions that add up to a portrait of our everyday lives (and most of us will never have to, anyway). We see the aggregate statistics — and watch our communities flourish. That’s democratic capitalism at its best.

Where Have I Heard This Before? (or, History Repeats Itself)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

So where do we go from here, census stakeholders? Let’s take stock.

As I reported in my last blog post, nearly a dozen House members think it’s a good idea to do away with every survey and census — except the once-a-decade population count — the U.S. Census Bureau conducts. With a few legislative votes and the stroke of a president’s pen, they would leave the world’s greatest democracy with virtually no useful information on which to base prudent decisions and with which to hold elected officials (like themselves) accountable.

Some observers are understandably shocked — shocked! — at the absurdity of such a proposal. Whatever could the proponents be thinking?

According to a press release, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), is acting on behalf the many annoyed constituents who believe the surveys are “invasive.” Many? Really??? Given the small sample size of non-census surveys, only a tiny fraction of the congressman’s constituents would ever be asked to fill one out. While the congressman acknowledges the need for “some” economic data, he is confident there are other ways to gather it that don’t involve “harassing people” or “invading their privacy.” “Americans are tired of too much government meddling in their daily lives,” Rep. Duncan assures us. (Except, I’m sure, when potholes need filling, a doctor’s visit is paid for through Medicare or Medicaid, classrooms are too crowded, or they really would like a new senior center close to public transportation.)

This all sounds vaguely familiar. In fact, it sounds like an effort to up-end the census (and related American Community Survey, which used to be the census long form)… circa 1970.

You see, that’s when a group of young conservatives, in a mailing to (presumably) other conservatives, wrote: “The citizen’s right of privacy is directly violated when the federal government attempts to force us to answer questions that are none of the government’s business… The point is not what questions are being asked,” the authors declared, “but that a federal agency dares to institute a process that will pry into the core of our individual lives.” They also organized anti-census demonstrations at federal buildings.

And they might have stirred every limited-government soul to dodge the census, except that one very notable conservative decided to call their bluff. Renowned columnist James J. Kilpatrick, himself a recipient of the anti-census diatribe, countered the “privacy” argument in an op-ed (Washington Evening Star, 2/22/70; syndicated elsewhere):

“Is it true that such information is ‘none of the government’s business?’ On the contrary, such information is of the first importance to government. How else can public policies be fashioned wisely? Where should schools be built, and water lines laid, and parks established? How many people will be using what highways and airports when? The economic and demographic information coming from confidential Census reports… is vital to every public and private undertaking that rests upon a knowledge of what our country is.”

There’s something else going on here aside from vague concerns about “privacy.” In the required “Statement of Constitutional Authority,” here’s what Rep. Duncan submitted in support of H.R. 1638:

“Article I Section 2 notes the need for an Enumeration of the people necessary for the apportionment of Congressional districts. That is the true purpose of the Census Bureau. This legislation seeks to return the Census Bureau to the Constitutional intent of the Founding Fathers by eliminating non-Constitutional additional enumerations that the Bureau undertakes today.”

So there we have it. The sponsors believe that the federal government does not have the authority to gather information from the people in order to produce statistics that guide fiscal and social policy-making and the allocation of government resources. Funny, this also rings a bell; the 1970 protesters labeled the census a “violat[ion] [of] our rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments to the Constitution.”

Not so, states’ rights advocate Kilpatrick shot back. Not only do legislators have broad authority with regard to census-taking (i.e. “in such manner as they shall by Law direct”), the columnist said, they have the power to regulate commerce. “Nothing in the Constitution prohibits the Congress from combining its powers in useful ways. Thus a Census question on the houses we own, and the plumbing and heating in them, may not relate narrowly to ‘enumeration,’ but it relates reasonably to commerce — and it scarcely reaches ‘the core of our individual lives’ [quoting the anti-census mailing he received]. The same thing is true of questions relating to our jobs and how we get to them.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Jim, though heaven knows I’ve tried.

Having defended the need for informed decision-making (is there any other worthwhile kind in a democracy?), I fully understand why survey recipients might view the questions as odd, at best, or maybe nonsensical or even intrusive. The Census Bureau has a responsibility, too, to explain clearly the purpose of questions to households fortunate enough (smile) to receive one, as well as to limit follow-up calls and door-knocks to a reasonable number for people who clearly don’t want to be bothered. Kudos to the agency for finally establishing a Respondent Advocate for Household Surveys, to be the ears and voice for people wondering what the heck the government really wants to know (e.g. not when you leave the house, but how many cars are on the road during rush hour!) and advise the Census Bureau on how to make surveys more user-friendly.

Now, if only our elected officials would demonstrate some leadership and help illuminate the need for objective, reliable data, instead of pretending we can live in a society that doesn’t even calculate the unemployment rate!

What We Don’t Know Can’t Hurt Us (Right?)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Hey, I have an idea!

Let’s stop collecting any information. About our economy. Our standard of living. Our educational progress. The well-being of our veterans and people with disabilities. The condition of our nation’s homes. How well our farmers are doing.

Let’s just live in an information vacuum, blithely ignoring the good and the bad (what you don’t know can’t hurt you, right?), drifting along in a state of blissful know-nothingness. Wouldn’t life be simple?

Okay, I’ll ‘fess up. This is not an original idea. I stole it from sophomore Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC-3), who just introduced a bill (H.R. 1638) to cancel the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), Economic Census, Census of Governments and every other survey the agency conducts, except the once-a-decade population count. Oh, and bye-bye Census of Agriculture (transferred from Census to the Agriculture Department in 1997). Sayonara, adios — no more data.

I think I get where Rep. Duncan is coming from. His biography says he wants to create a new congressional Committee on the Elimination of Nonessential Federal Programs, “with the express purpose of reducing federal outlays.” No data? No way to identify society’s challenges and to allocate federal resources prudently. Mission accomplished.

Cool! Then we might not need congressmen, because just about all of them rely on Census Bureau data to justify their existence. Rep. Duncan’s website offers great “Resources” for businesses, linking to Business USA, a program started by President Obama (yikes!) in 2011. On the Business USA website, I found this nugget on the Twitter feed: “Who Are America’s Job Creators?” Important question, so I went to the blog by the SBA Administrator Karen Mills. Well, wouldn’t you know… there are 28 million small businesses in the U.S.; they create two out of three new jobs and employ half of the country’s workforce. “But when you dive into the data,” Ms. Mills blogs, “you see that not all small businesses are the same.” Whoa, stop reading… can’t continue this important analysis without the data, which presumably comes from the Economic Census (cancelled!) and follow-on surveys (cancelled!).

Rep. Duncan also offers “Guidance and key resources to help eligible grantseekers find information on federal grants, loans, and nonfinancial assistance for projects, as well as on private funding” on his Resources page. 3rd Congressional District businesses, please go no further, because in FY 2008, ACS data guided nearly 70 percent of all federal grants (Brookings Institution report). Scratch those opportunities off your list.

Given the recent tragic events in Boston, it’s probably a safe bet that most lawmakers support funding to bolster state and local resources to combat various threats to peace and safety. Rep. Duncan provides a link on his website to help localities in his district find information on Homeland Security Grants, as well as equally important Assistance to Firefighter grants. Wait, hold up… scratch those programs; both rely on ACS data to determine eligibility. Sorry, local law enforcement officials and first responders; you’ll have to look elsewhere for support.

Under Transportation issues, Rep. Duncan tells us that, “infrastructure is a legitimate government function.” Good, I’m with you so far. The congressman goes on to say he supports legislation to phase out federal involvement in highway and mass transit programs, turning over all responsibility to the states and eliminating “costly federal mandates.” Okay, I don’t necessarily agree, but let’s assume the congressman’s position for a minute. And just how is South Carolina supposed to decide where to allocate its transportation dollars: better roads in Charleston, or Anderson (“The Electric City!”)? Without comparable, high-quality, small-area data (available from only one source: the U.S. Census Bureau), Palmetto lawmakers presumably will be throwing darts at a map (or maybe holding a sweepstakes – YES!). Anderson officials, by the way, really want you to know that the city is a magnet for businesses because it sits on the busy I-85 corridor. Sadly, businesses won’t know where to set up shop, because they rely on ACS and Economic Census data to understand local markets, workforce, commuting patterns and economic activity in prospective new locations.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-3), original cosponsor of H.R. 1638, good to hear from you again. I applaud your focus on economic recovery (whether or not I agree with your approach); the fiscal plan described on your website clearly lays out the potential problem of deficit and spending in relation to gross domestic product. Wait… we won’t be able to calculate GDP without the quinquennial Economic Census, which provides the baseline data on classes of business enterprises, economic output, producer incomes, investment in assets and other measures of economic activity. (Worse, I’ll be deprived of one of my favorite statutory words: quinquennial!) Seems hard to make the case for one fiscal plan over another without, well, data on the economy. Just sayin’.

Hello, Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-FL-2)! I see you just introduced the “Strengthening Rural Communities Act” (H.R. 1632), directing 3-5 percent of existing Rural Development Essential Communities Facilities money for technical assistance. The bill would “make it easier for rural communities to thrive by providing the technical assistance and project planning they need to strengthen public safety, public health, and public access to upgraded services.” A worthy goal, indeed.

The Agriculture Department administers the Community Facility Grants Program to help very small communities develop “essential” facilities, such as health care and childcare centers. Wait… the program gives priority to low-income rural areas — those with “median household incomes below the higher [sic?] of the poverty line or 60% of the State non-metropolitan median household income.” The only source of that information for rural areas would be the American Community Survey. Sorry, 2nd Congressional District residents; if you want to demonstrate a need for these grants, you might have to stand outside looking poor (because your congressman has cosponsored a bill to eliminate the availability of any data to prove it). (Good thing Marianna, Blountstown and other 2nd District communities have already taken advantage of project planning assistance to build or upgrade water and wastewater projects, according to the congressman’s website. Without the ACS, no more USDA Water and Waste Disposal Loans and Grants, worth $45 million in FY 2008.)

I think I’m getting one of my famous census headaches. But while you join me with a cold pack on your forehead, trying to take this all in, let me say there is a redeeming provision in this otherwise absurd bill. It eliminates the mid-decade census! What? You didn’t know Congress authorized a second census in the year ending in “5?” Well, that’s because Congress never funded one! But obviously lawmakers thought in 1976 that it might be a good thing to have more data about the condition of our communities and well-being of our population. Whatever were they thinking back then?